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First review: Sky's HD box

Even Elton John looked good

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Sky_hdtv_box_7_1_2Tech Digest After months of waiting, HDTVUK finally got to have a proper look at Sky's HD box and programming at the company's HQ in west London.

For the best part of an hour I played and poked the box and watched the new HD channels live. I get the system installed next week, so you'll find a fuller review here soon. Until then, here are my initial thoughts.

For the record, the demo was conducted in a lounge style room in the HQ using Sony's 40 inch Bravia LCD TV set the KD-LS4000.

The box

Well, Sky has done a good job redesigning the Sky+ unit. It looks a lot more stylish than its predecessor. You can check out the specs here, but the key part is that it has 160 Gigabytes of storage for your HD and standard definition recordings, as well as a further chunk for Sky';s Push HD plans. Incidentally, there's still no word from Sky on this yet.

The remote control/interface

Sky sensibly hasn't messed with the remote control. It is almost identical to the current Sky+ remote. The interface is marginally different in that there is a red button which gives instant access to the HD programming. You still access the planner/hard drive through the green button. There are also a few tweaks to the system set up menu, including an option of recording in 576, 720 or 1080 lines.

The TV set

The PR from Sony told me that the set would only resolve 720 lines and that Sony's next series of LCD Bravia sets would resolve 1080 lines. She added that the HD image would look significantly better on these sets. This is in keeping with what Sony has been saying about its TV sets, but Philips, and others, take a different view. For the full 720 Vs 1080 debate check here.

Finding HD

Sky has been fairly upfront about what content is HD-originated and what is upscaled from SD. If the content has been shot in HD, the letters "HD" appear in the info box. Almost all the content that Sky screened today was shot in HD.

Cricket in HD

Cricket has been billed as a killer app for HD and Sky hasn't disappointed us. Those greens certainly look green and you could see tremendous detail when the cameras tracked the crowds at the England vs Sri Lanka game today. You could also see the marks the ball had made in the batsman's crease and the graphics were amazing. The difference between the pictures in SD and 720p was phenomenal. I can't wait to see the Premiership in HD.

Documentaries

The trailer for Discovery's HD channel also looked superb. The clip focuses on exotic locations and the viewer gets to see beautifully rich colours. The level of detail of some of the animals was pretty stunning too.

Movies

Movies also looks great in HD. Even a throwaway movie like Deuce Bigalow European Gigolo became very watchable. Venice looked gorgeous. I think certain recent movies will make the best of the format. It'll be very interesting see Star Wars Revenge of the Sith, which is Sky's big movie for opening night. The pay per view movies go for £3.75 a shot, which is the same as standard definition films.

BBC HD

The BBC's debut day line up of HD programming looks pretty unappealing. Fortunately, in the afternoon they were showing an extended trailer which had pictures from Later with Jools Holland. I tried in vain to catch the lines on Elton John's face, which says to me that either he's weathered very well, or more likely been on the receiving end of some serious make up. The BBC footage had a pristine quality that some of the Sky footage lacked, which is probably because it was shot in a studio, whereas most Sky footage was either an outside broadcast or documentary based video. I can't say for certain whether the Later footage was true HD, but even if it was upscaled, it still looked really good.

Sky One/24

For me this was the weak link in the Sky HD package. The footage from 24 looked more like upscaled HD than it did true HD. To be fair, I only watched a couple of minutes of the programme and the shots were fairly dark, but then the dark shots on Sin City looked amazing.

Overall

There is a clear leap up from standard definition through to HD. I would say that sport and movies are going to be very striking in high def, and the documentaries really do take you closer to the subject than before. I am going to reserve judgement about the Sky One stuff, the price, and the capabilities of the box, until I get to take one home next week.

Suffice to say, I can't wait to get my hands on that box.

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